Crepuscular Rays and Sun Propellers / by Liquid Music

Composer Nina Young

Composer Nina Young

Miranda Cuckson is giving a solo show on November 14th, and I’m thrilled to be joining her on electronics. Miranda has programmed an exciting evening of music by Dai Fujikura, Kaija Saariaho, Ileana Perez-Velasquez, and Richard Barrett. Most of these works have a live, interactive electronic component. The violin’s (or viola’s) live sound is picked up with a microphone, sent to my computer, and then different “patches” (software packages programmed by the individual composers) process the sound. Finally, a new altered version is sent out into the venue’s speakers and mixes with Miranda’s live performance. My role is that of quasi performer / engineer / trouble shooter: I’m running the patches, following the scores, and responding to and with Miranda’s playing – sometimes more like a chamber musician, and sometimes like an orchestra following a concerto soloist. It’s an honor to work with Miranda – she is a really unique, sensitive, and versatile musician who presents a wide aesthetic variety of new music. In fact, I think she’s so great that I flew in from Rome to do this concert with her.

Nina's  Sun Propeller  'patch' - the custom build electronic software that will accompany Miranda's detuned violin.

Nina's Sun Propeller 'patch' - the custom build electronic software that will accompany Miranda's detuned violin.

The unifying thread behind Miranda’s programming choice revolves around elements of nature, specifically light and air. SPCO’s Liquid Music series is billing this concert as Sun Propeller and that happens to be the title of my violin and electronics that you’ll hear on the 14th! So now I’ll tell you a little bit about it. The term “sun propeller” refers to the propeller-like rays of light that occur when sunbeams pierce through openings in the clouds. For those that want to rush over to Wikipedia, crepuscular rays is the scientific name for these columns of light that radiate from a single point in the sky. Returning to “sun propeller”, the phrase is the literal translation of the Tuvan word for these special sunbeams, “Huun-Huur-Tu”. This also happens to the name of a famous Tuvan folk group that I was introduced to in college, and have been obsessed with ever since.  

For those unfamiliar with Tuvan folk music, stop everything (after reading this) and check it out. The tradition is perhaps best known for the practice of throat singing – a vocal technique that produces multiple tones at the same time. A singer begins with a low drone-tone and then accentuates the different overtimes of the harmonic series to create radically beautiful timbres. The changing emphasis of the harmonic series allows some quasi melodies to pierce through, but the music really values timbre (tone color) and vertical relationships rather than traditional western melody and harmony. As a fan of electronic music, I was really intrigued by this sound world and immediately began to draw relationships to different studio filtering and synthesis techniques.  

Diagram of bow placement options that create "organic filters"

Diagram of bow placement options that create "organic filters"

To be clear, my piece is not trying to emulate Tuvan music in any way, but I was drawing inspiration from the physical and poetic principles behind the Tuvan sound world. For example, I call for the violin to be scordatura – a musical term for retuning a string instrument in unusual ways. Miranda tunes her lowest string down a 4th to a D, and the upper string down a step to a different D. The final tuning of the violin is D-D-A-D (rather than G-D-A-E) and this totally changes the way the instrument resonates.  The lowest string now provides a textured, low growling D drone upon which the rest of the music emerges. The piece then organically grows out of this initial sound. I also asks for Miranda to place her bow along the strings in some unusual positions. Sun Propeller starts with the bow unusually far along the fingerboard. This allows for subtones (notes lower than the string is typically capable of producing) to emerge. Later on you’ll notice that the bow moves across the violin, all the way from where the left-hand fingers usually play, to right on top of the bridge. In one part of the piece Miranda does this while she repeatedly plays 16th note “A”s. Even though the pitch repeats, its timbre entirely changes. She’s creating an organic filter – very similar to what the throat singers do.

Another interesting thing about Tuvan throat singing is that it is a direct imitation of the sounds of nature (babbling brooks, wind brushing through tall grasses, sounds reverberating between mountain faces, etc). The music is often performed outdoors and is used to pay respects to the spirits of nature. This means that the music has a location/space-specific element to it. Suddenly the sound source, and the way it interacts with the objects around it (reverb and spatilization characteristics) becomes very important. This is paralleled in my piece through the use of multi-channel electronics. The number and placement of speakers can fundamentally reshape the concert hall and expand the sound capabilities of the performer. You’ll get to hear different spatilization tehcniques in my piece, the Saariaho, and Fukijura’s.

The JACK Quartet performing Phase I of Nina C. Young's "Memento Mori" on March 12, 2013 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York City. Phase I: "ut cuspis sic vita fluit dum stare videtur" (life flies on like an arrow, while it seems to stand still)

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